If you missed part 1 of this little adventure, you can read that HERE.
After a day's train ride out towards the West Indian border from Jodhpur, I arrived in Jaisalmer. From Jaisalmer, I hired a jeep to take me farther out into the nothingness of the Thar Desert, stopping through an old Rajasthani ghost town on the way. The last article left off where the road ended. We had been on rough, gravel roads for hours at this point, so we were on the actual edge of India. From here there would be nothing but sand and shrubs until Pakistan. So where were we... Oh yes - there was a mud shack at the end of this road.
It was a dingy little shack that looked as if it couldn't have included more than 2 rooms. In spite of this, I would come to find out that 2 families lived here. In front of the shack were a couple of camels, and 2 confused looking Germans, who looked as if they had been sitting there all day, waiting for their ride. I had a brief conversation with them, before being ushered around back for some chai (tea).
So let me make some introductions. What follows is a series of portraits I took of my "camel guide" and his family. When I took the photograph of my guide, much like the boy from the previous article, he looked miserable. I tried to lighten the mood, but he wasn't having it. It was odd because as soon as the picture had been taken he snapped back to his normal happy self. His family was the same way - only one boy managed to squeeze out a smile. I tried to explain to them that people normally smile in pictures, but they weren't getting it. Taking portraits of the people here was what it must have been like in the 1800s, when nobody smiled in anything, ever.
Anyway, the first picture down was my guide, Harka. The second picture down, the older man, was Harka's uncle. The third and final picture – the family – is a mixed bag. The woman, whose face is hidden by the red veil, was my guide's sister-in-law. The children were his nephews – except for the baby. The baby was his son.
I sat back behind the shack with Harka's family, teaching the oldest boy (in black) a few simple magic tricks with my fingers. Do you know the trick where you make it look like you are sliding your finger off? I know a few tricks of that sort that I'll whip out from time to time. Watching my index finger detach from my hand and then reattach, he was enthralled, as I knew he would be. These tricks are my “move” when it comes to making friends with children… in a non-creepy way.
Riding The Camels, Finally
Eventually it was time to saddle up. I sat on one of the camels, and held on for dear life as it groaned and heaved its way to its feet. Unlike the Bactrian Camels that I rode in Ladakh, which were no bigger than horses, these camels were HUGE. They were like dinosaurs. Each one was easily 3 meters tall, minimum. The formal name for them is Dromedary, although they are commonly referred to as the Arabian Camel.
It was about 1.5 hours of riding out to our destinations, the first 5 minutes of which were pleasant. After that I was gritting my teeth to bear the pain inflicted on my undercarriage every time the camel took one of its lurching steps forward. It didn’t help that I was wearing jeans at the time. This, apparently, is a no-no when it comes to riding camels, or anything requiring a saddle for that matter. All the cowboy movies I've seen completely steered me wrong.
During the ride out, there was no shortage of wild life. Birds of all kinds could be seen perched all around us. A variety of farm animals grazed free of human restrictions. Wild camels walked in groups. Wild dogs could be seen slinking through the thorny bramble. Small groups of chinkara (deer), though skittish, would stare at us as we lumbered by. Then their ears would move, and before I could blink they had darted over the nearest hill. Here's a picture of a chinkara that I got from Google...
Eventually, shortly before sunset, we reached an area of full-blown sand dunes, and my camel clumsily fell to its knees. I stumbled off, and limped my way off into the dunes. The pain of the saddle lingered. War had come to Middle Earth, if you know what I mean. Here are some pictures of our sunset in the desert:
Despite the thriving ecosystem of the surrounding shrub lands, the desert was pretty void of animals. There’s not a lot of life, aside from the odd dung beetle, rolling a piece of excrement across the dunes. Even the camels were set free to go find some shrubbery to nibble on. Their front legs were bound together though so they couldn’t wander too far. The camels then hobbled out of the dunes, leaving us humans as the largest life form in sight. There is one community of animals, however, that seems to thrive here: wild dogs. They were everywhere. It was a bit intimidating at first, but they seemed to friendly enough after I had spent a little bit of time near them.
When the sun finally set, I tromped my way back towards our entry point into the dunes. I had wandered far enough that it was difficult to tell which was the right direction. As I hiked up and down the sandy slopes, looking for other humans, I thought about what it must be like to get lost in the Sahara. Scary perspective. Don’t worry though, eventually I found my way back.
There was a fire, and I sat with 2 Belgian people who had arrived at the dunes earlier that day. Both of them residents of a small town on the South Indian coast, they were good company. Dusk was creeping over the desert by this point, and the light was fading fast. They had a camel guide of their own, who was much more spirited than the one I had been paired with.
“Come on camel! Let’s go desert!” he sang, to the tune of “I’m a Barbie Girl” in a thick Indian accent as he prepared our dinner. They had conjured a small fire, and were cooking… something, I’m not really sure what. I was even less sure once they actually served it to me. It was good though. There was rice and dhal… I know that much. There was also some hardy bread served to us as a sort of appetizer. I gobbled it down despite the lack of information. It was good.
Above us we could see some bright stars above us, but no moon. “Where is the moon?” we asked, laughing. “Moon coming later,” came the reply. Well, spoiler alert: the moon never came. Typical moon! Amiright?!
Night falls In The Great Indian Desert
After dinner it was bedtime. We were led over the dunes, to an odd pile of… something. There were 4 metal legs digging into the sand, and whatever they were supporting was wrapped tightly in plastic tarps and rope. A few minutes of unpacking revealed that this was a pile of cots, which would serve as our beds for the night. We dragged our cots into a low point in the dunes, to avoid the wind, and proceeded to shake the sand off of our covers.
There was no tent. There was no shelter. We lay in our cots staring up at the night sky. The temperature was still dropping when we were going to bed, and the winds were picking up, so I huddled myself into a cocoon and hunkered down for what was sure to be a rough night’s sleep.
I was a bit preoccupied with the situation until I took a minute to look at the stars over my head. I have never seen stars like this before. That night sky was bigger, and brighter than anything I’ve ever seen before. With no moon to outshine them, the stars shined brighter and more brilliantly than I had thought possible. There were thousands of them; more than I had ever seen in one sky, even in the best pictures. There was not an inch of the sky that was not filled with stars, even right down the horizon line. There was no angle to look at this sky from that included everything – a full 360 degrees of neck-craning was necessary to see everything. It’s hard to describe the immensity of it all in words. It was the kind of view that makes you believe in God.
Staring up at them for too long, I started to feel nauseous. I could feel the earth moving beneath me. It was trippy. I removed my glasses, and drifted off to sleep beneath the brilliant blur of creation.
The Next Morning: Blood & Fur
I woke up that morning to the sound of howling dogs shortly before the first morning light. I was cold, and sore, so I did my best to tune them out and keep sleeping. I despite the sandy wind that now howled around my bed, I managed to fall back asleep. It wasn’t long before I woke up again, this time to savage barking and snarling. It seemed to be coming from all side of me at once. Do I dare poke my head out into the cold sandy wind to assess the situation? I thought that maybe the dogs would go away on their own. The barking and growling continued though. I was feeling kind of tense, listening in on what seemed to be a battle to the death.
Finally it became too intense to ignore, and I stuck and arm out of my blanket to blindly dig around in the sand for my glasses. There they are! I brought them back up to my face to bring clarity to the blurry objects that surrounded me. It all seemed much dirtier than I remembered. Just then there was another savage exchange of barking and clawing from behind me. I wheeled around to see 2 dogs up on their hind legs, front paws interlocked, silhouetted on the dunes behind me, snarling menacingly. It was a strangely photogenic moment from my place at the bottom of the dune, and one that is burned into my brain. I had the impulse to reach for my camera, wherever it was, but lacked the energy to follow through. I retreated from the sandy, cold waste to my cocoon to ride out the dog wars.
Those dogs looked pretty cute in the pictures, right? Well, later that morning, we would see that pack of dogs turn on one of their own, savagely attacking a smaller, scratched up pack member. It was brutal. One of the biggest, strongest dogs in the pack had clamped its teeth down on this smaller dog's spine, right below the neck, and was shaking it like a rag doll, while the rest of the pack bit and clawed at it where they could. Amidst the snarling and barking I could hear the smaller dog crying and whimpering in pain. I couldn't take it anymore. I knew it was just nature, but I really didn't give a shit. Not today, nature! I found a branch, ran over, and threw it into the brawl to break things up. The dogs scattered. They seemed to have a fearful respect for humans, so I wasn't worried, but I kept my distance anyway. The branch I threw spared that dog's life for the time being, but it was badly hurt. It was literally bleeding into the sand, but instead of hitting the road, it stayed put.
Breakfast came around, and our guides dug the silverwear out of the sand. I sat on my haunches, watching in detached astonishment as the pan that had been buried in sand only moments ago, was filled with water and put over a fire. I had woken up with sand in every orifice. When I bite down, I felt the crunch of the grains between my teeth and against the walls of my mouth. I could already tell that I had a cold from the previous night. Time would tell that that cold would last for another 2 weeks, and a rough 2 weeks they were.
We told our guides that they didn’t need to make us any breakfast; the chai they were preparing was quite enough. It took them 30 minutes of searching to locate our camels, but once they did, it wasn’t long before we were on our way. My ass bones had not recovered in the least during the night. Getting back on the camel was the most painful thing I’ve experienced in a long time. Eventually I asked to get off and walk, but not before we had to make a pit stop to scold the camel behind me in the caravan for eating the saddle that I was sitting on. It was a little bit intimidating – camels can bite. Those teeth were just a few inches away from chomping on my butt!
From there, we got a jeep back to Jaisalmer. From Jaisalmer, I took a bus back to Jodhpur. My camel guide helped me catch the bus, but he wasn’t as much help as I’d hoped, because he was illiterate. I knew that, but I had forgotten somehow when I handed him my ticket to read. It was a little awkward. You’d think that, after traveling through all of India already (not to mention Bangladesh), that wouldn’t have come as a huge shock to me, but I was really caught off guard! I’m not sure that I ever really internalized how important it is to be literate until that moment. Add it to the list of reasons why education is so important in these places. In this area of Rajasthan though, not much is changing, at least not any time soon. His nephews (the ones from earlier in this article) don’t go to school. They just play all day, and they will continue to do so until they turn 13. Then they will be put to work. I was sad to hear that. With nobody there to teach them, they will grow up illiterate as well.
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Those stars though. I wish I could show you somehow, but alas, that image will be just for me. The best things in travel can’t be explained, at least not fully. You just have to experience them to understand. That night sky was one of those things.